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Jeff Lab's STEM summit challenges employers

Updated: April 6, 2012 - 1:27 pm

Posted: April 6, 2012

By Susan Smigielski Acker


Newport News Public School students have the opportunity to be involved in initiatives in science, technology, engineering and mathematics - known as the STEM subjects. Recently the school system showcased students succeeding in those areas and the businesses and agencies that are helping.

The STEM Summit at Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News on March 29 opened with several students demonstrating their research, inventions and solutions to problems.

Trey Ousterhoot and Stephanie Jackson, both students at Denbigh High School, designed traps used to capture water and sediment near the old courthouse to test for various chemicals. The research was part of their advanced placement environmental science class.

"It feels good to do this because I don't want the Earth be unhealthy," Ousterhoot said. Both students said the class and research have made them consider a career in environmental science.

Following the demonstrations, representatives of Newport News organizations and businesses told the crowd of nearly 300 why they participate in the Newport News Public School STEM Initiative.

Mike Dallas, chief operating officer for Jefferson Lab, said the center was happy to host the summit because "we are not doing well as a nation in educating students in these fields."

Dallas said 30 to 35 percent of scientists who come to Jefferson Lab to do research come from other countries.

He said several key leadership positions are filled by non-Americans. For example, the laboratory director is British and the head of physics is from the Netherlands. While he enjoys their contribution, he said, "I would like to get some Americans to run this place."

Retirements of the laboratory's scientists will increase in the next five years, Dallas said.

"We have a problem and it is a tough one to solve," he said.

Lynn Grimsley, a local real estate agent and Newport News Education Foundation president, spoke about that group's 20-year mission - to get businesses involved in the schools.

"Employers should be involved in education," she said.

Ashby C. Kilgore, superintendent of Newport News Public Schools, provided statistics about students studying STEM subjects.

"The number of engineering degrees awarded is down 20 percent from 1985," she said. "For young people to stay competitive we must prepare students in STEM."

To help better prepare students, the school system is renovating science labs in the middle schools and high schools with federal stimulus money.

Help from area businesses is important, Kilgore said. Newport News Shipbuilding provides 50 students with internships. NASA Langley Research Center presented teacher workshops last summer, and various foundation members offered students a spring break internship, she said.

Riverside Hospital had several students shadow hospital employees. Jennifer Jones, a student at Woodside High School, was one. Speaking to the group, Jones said her experience of shadowing nurses in the neonatal unit made her want to pursue a career in nursing at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

Danny Hunley, vice president of operations at Newport News Shipbuilding, said the yard plans to hire 10,000 people in the next five years. The positions will require math, science and engineering abilities as well as critical thinking skills. That is why the shipyard has invested in a new apprentice school and works with Newport News schools.

"We don't see education as an expense but rather an investment," Hunley said.

David E. Bowles, associate administrator at NASA Langley Research Center, said the center's commitment to STEM education lies in the vast array of education programs offered including internships and teacher science workshops.

He said the combination of organizations such as Jefferson Lab, NASA Langley Research Center and Newport News Shipbuilding "has blessed the Virginia Peninsula with STEM as an economic engine."

STEM studies become the pipeline for this to continue, he said.

In closing the summit, Newport News Mayor McKinley L. Price, a dentist, said education and businesses drive a huge part of the local economy with STEM opportunities. He asked those attending to consider sponsoring or participating in a program with the schools.

Lisa Surles-Law, science education administrator of Jefferson Lab, said after the summit that it is important for the business community to help the schools.

"This is a call to action," she said. "That was the most important message today." nib